Eider-ducks

Passing over the Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), a strong-flying sea Duck of the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, we come to the Eiders and Scoters, which are all strong-flying and diving sea Ducks. Of these the Eider-Ducks are beyond question the most widely known and on the whole the most interesting. Some six or seven forms may properly be classed under this designation, these having been grouped under three genera, although by some regarded as belonging to but a single generic type. Of these the so-called true Eiders (Somateria) may be first considered. They are large and strikingly handsome birds with conspicuous and strongly marked colors, — velvety black and snowy white, variegated with buff and delicate pale sea-green. The males are mostly black below and white above, while the females and young have the plumage barred with dusky and pale fulvous or rusty. Of the five forms recognized the European Eider (S. mollissima) is perhaps the best known. The male has the bill dull grayish olive in life and the breast a deep vinaceous buff. It is a native of northern Europe. A subspecies of this is the Greenland Eider (S. m. Borealis), which differs in having the bill orange yellowish and the breast paler buff. It is found in eastern Arctic America, including Greenland, and coming south to northern Labrador in summer and to the northern border of the United States in winter. The American Eider (S. Dresseri), which is also found on the Atlantic coast of North America from Maine to Newfoundland and southern Labrador, has the naked angle on the side of the forehead in the male broad and rounded (this angle being narrow and pointed in the last two), and the black of the head bordered beneath with pale green for its entire length. Similar to this, but larger and distinguished by a V-shaped mark of black on the throat, is the Pacific Eider (S. Nigra), which ranges over northwestern America from the Great Slave Lake westward, reaching also into eastern Asia. The King Eider (S. Spectabilis), of the northern portions of the Northern Hemisphere, has the V-shaped mark of black on the throat as in the last, but may be known by the light bluish gray on the top of the head. The Spectacled Eider (Arctonetta Fischeri), although similar in general plumage to the other Eider-Ducks, differs markedly in the shape of the bill, this being shorter than the head and covered at base with a dense mat of soft velvety feathers, and further in the “cushion” of stiffened feathers which surround the eyes. It is a rather rare and little known species confined to the coast of Alaska from Norton Sound to Point Barrow. The last member of the group, although perhaps not a true Eider, is Steller’s Duck ( Polysticta stelleri), a bird of the high Arctic and sub-Arctic coasts of the Northern Hemisphere.

Although it would be of interest to recount the life histories of all these birds, lack of space necessitates confining our attention mainly to a single species, and as perhaps the best known this may be the European Eider. Although the birds themselves may not be very generally known, since much of their life is spent at sea, the uses to which the soft down has long been put makes them widely familiar.

This bird makes its summer home well within the Arctic Circle on the islands and rocky coasts of Spitzbergen, Iceland, Nova Zembla, and the islands north of Siberia. Here they resort in thousands and in many places are carefully protected and induced to nest by the inhabitants, who profit largely by gathering the down. The following graphic account is from the pen of Mr. C. W. Shepard, who describes the conditions he found on the northern coast of Iceland : ” The islands of Viga and CEdey are their headquarters in the northwest of Iceland. In these they live in undisturbed tranquillity. They have become almost domesticated, and are found in vast multitudes, as the young remain and breed at the place of their birth. As the island was approached we could see flocks upon flocks of the sacred birds, and could hear their cooing at a great distance. We landed on a rocky, wave-worn shore. It was the most wonderful ornithological sight conceivable. The Ducks and their nests were everywhere. Great brown Ducks sat upon their nests in masses, and at every step started from under our feet. It was with difficulty that we avoided treading on some of the nests. On the coast of the opposite shore was a wall built of large stones, just above the high-water level, about three feet in height, and of considerable thickness. At the bottom, on both sides of it, alternate stones had been left out, so as to form a series of square compartments for the Ducks to nest in. Almost every compartment was occupied, and as we walked along the shore, a long line of Ducks flew out, one after the other. The surface of the water also was perfectly white with drakes, who welcomed their brown wives with loud and clamorous cooing. The house itself was a marvel. The earthen walls that surrounded it and the window embrasures were occupied by Ducks. On the ground the house was fringed with Ducks. On the turf slopes of its roof we could see Ducks, and a Duck sat on the door-scraper. The grassy banks had been cut into square patches, about eighteen inches having been removed, and each hollow had been filled with Ducks. A windmill was infested, and so were all the outhouses, mounds, rocks, and crevices. The Ducks were everywhere. Many were so tame that we could stroke them on their nests; and the good lady told us that there was scarcely a Duck on the island that would not allow her to take its eggs without flight or fear. Most of the eggs are taken and pickled for winter consumption, one or two only being left in each nest to hatch.” The nests in many places are described as being made of seaweed and lined with the down, plucked by the female from her breast, until it makes a heap four or five inches deep around and among the eggs. The product of down from each nest is about one sixth of a pound, and curiously enough is said to be of a better quality than when taken from the dead bird by hand. In some localities the nests are despoiled of the down and the bird forced to make use of grasses and stems as a lining. The eggs are four or six in number and usually of a pale olive-buff or olive-green. After incubation is well under way the males generally live apart from the females, and often at a distance from shore. The food of these Ducks consists largely of mollusks and crustaceans, which they secure by diving and which they are enabled to crush with their powerful bills.